Ten of the 15 tracks on this “compilation” are previously unreleased, so even Kronos completists have surprises in store. Not the eclecticism—“eclectic” would be the quartet’s middle name if it had one. The jarring nature of the juxtapositions, however, is another matter. The first four tracks alone allege common ground among Swedish folk, American black gospel, Syrian folk-pop, and Vietnamese folk. Go macro and the panorama will astound. Go micro and the Don Walser-sung-yodeled “Danny Boy” will have you grousing, “We get the point.”
Does the fact that Samuel Barber’s Adagio for Strings is as over-recorded as Leonard Cohen’s “Hallelujah” and therefore ripe for deconstruction justify this techno DJ’s transformation of it into a rave-club fantasia, replete with woofer-rattling sonic devices at glaring odds with the original’s patient subtlety? Well, kind of. Given Walter/Wendy Carlos’ Switched-On Bach, one must remain open-minded. Still, 12 battering-ram mixes feels over-subversive. If they turn benighted ravers on to the original, fine. But nonravers can take a rain check.
This album’s complete subtitle, as revealed in the liner notes, is “Mysterious lyra-viol music from seventeeth-century Holland & England,” and the key word is “mysterious.” Smith’s recounting (also in the notes) of his investigations into the Manuscript for the Lyra-Viol c.1670, from which most of these 35 brief pieces come, reads like a musical detective story. More importantly, Smith’s playing, besides emphasizing the richness that a viol with its seventh string removed can express, captures the haunting ineffability of a long-forgotten past.
The two “premiere” recordings, Johann Martin Friedrich Nisle’s Sonata in F Minor, Op. 15 and Harry Bulow’s “Indiana Dunes,” couldn’t be more different. The former, composed in the early 19th century by a relatively obscure German, ripples with early Romantic impulses. The latter, composed three years ago by an Iowan, evokes a striking piece of Midwestern geography with a shifting series of 20th- and 21st-century styles. What they share is the Trio Quelque Chose’s vigorous sensitivity of execution. The Koechlin, Piazzolla, and Brahms pieces do too.
The Juilliard String Quartet’s Elliott Carter: The Five String Quartets (Sony Classical) stands as the definitive recording of 20th-century American (and maybe Western) music’s most rewardingly difficult compositions. One reason is that the quartet worked intimately with Carter to prepare the most faithful reproductions of what he had imagined. Another is that the staggering complexity of what he had imagined is every bit a match for the quartet’s brand-name virtuosity.
Slashing, emotionally taut, driven as much by tempi as by tonality and maybe more, the compositions can be listened to for years with delight by open-minded, untrained listeners without providing or even suggesting vocabulary with which those listeners can explain their delight to colleagues at the water cooler. Similes might help—specifically, the plays of Samuel Beckett, to which the liner notes instructively liken the pieces, and the Jean Cocteau film Le Sang d’un Poète, which got Carter’s wheels spinning on these pieces in the first place.–A.O.